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EARTHQUAKE: THE LONG ROAD BACK : Pride Bottoms Out in ‘Top of Los Angeles’ : Sylmar: Facade of affordable residences in a semi-rural setting has crumbled for many. Erratic damage patterns suggest construction flaws.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The community that proclaims itself “The Top of Los Angeles” has long been the place where the middle class could accomplish the improbable--own a condominium or rent an inexpensive apartment in an area where horses still roam.

Early Monday morning, the Northridge earthquake shattered that facade for many newcomers, revealing bitterness, anger and uncertainty where pride once stood.

Yet the difference between what withstood the temblor and what didn’t remains elusive in Sylmar, where condominiums and apartment complexes sprung up like weeds throughout the 1980s. Erratic damage patterns left ringing questions: Were these dwellings not just affordable, but cheap? Were amenities like first-floor parking fatal flaws?

“Over the past couple of days people keep asking me, ‘Why did these buildings fail?’ ” said Dave Keim, Los Angeles’ principal building inspector. “You know what I’m telling them, sort of tongue in cheek? ‘We had an earthquake.’ ”

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“There’s only so much you can design for and still be cost-effective. What if your rent was three times what it is now? What are people willing to pay? That’s a big trade-off.”

Michael Nieto thinks he traded off quality. He packed his belongings from the damaged Sunflower Condominiums on Foothill Boulevard near Bledsoe Street, and rued the day he bought one.

“They did a lousy job,” Nieto said. “In ’89, when you couldn’t afford a house, it was great to get it. But now, we have something that’s not worth the money.”

Sally and David Mejia swore they’d never return to the Sunflower unit they bought four years ago. “I don’t think they’re well built,” Sally Mejia said. “I think the newer houses and townhouses are made cheaper.”

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But another resident at Sunflower, Richard Overton, said he wasn’t disappointed with the building’s performance.

“These places did excellent,” Overton said. “On either side of us there’s major damage. There are cracks in the back, but it’s just cosmetic.”

An official with Lordon Management Co. of Covina, which manages Sunflower, referred calls to the company president, who was not available for comment. Building records show Sunflower was built to code, and inspectors found no subsequent violations. As of Friday, inspectors had not posted safety assessments at the building.

Across the street, Leslie Bradbury and a half-dozen fellow residents of Stoneman Villas bragged about the intact beams and smooth walls in their 25-year-old buildings.

“When they put those up down there, I felt like they went up in three weeks,” said Bradbury, motioning to a row of damaged apartments and condominiums across the boulevard.

In the wake of the deadly apartment collapse that killed 16 people in Northridge, some experts blame the very amenity that made Sylmar so affordable--ground-floor garages that let builders put more housing in less space.

Stoneman Villas, which survived, has attached, rear garages. Sunflower sits atop parking areas, and while it stayed up, numerous walls cracked.

At Shadow Trails Apartments, farther west, two buildings pancaked onto their ground-floor garages. But even so, rooms remained remarkably intact, and no one was seriously injured.

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Even near the deadly Northridge Meadows collapse, almost identical structures weathered the tremors.

Charlotte Bedard, vice president of the Community Planning Advisory Council in Sylmar, hoped the quake would slow down condominium and apartment development and force officials to reconsider codes.

“We designated one area in Sylmar to be for condos,” Bedard said. “Now it’s just mushrooming away. It’s just one after another. . . . They just threw them together. They’re shabby,” she said.

David Silverman, the Los Angeles city planner assigned to the Sylmar area, says he hopes to consider tighter restrictions on ground-floor garages in the next draft of the area’s community plan. “That’s something that I feel as a professional I should bring up,” he said.

As a professional demolition worker, David Bibins scoffed at current codes, while unloading his possessions from a collapsed building at Shadow Trails on Foothill Boulevard near Glenoaks Boulevard.

“You can just take a look at some of the older buildings around here--they’re still standing,” said Bibins. “Plaster? Drywall? Come on. It’s like saying, ‘Huff. Puff. Blow my house down.’ ”


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